Sunday, August 23, 2009

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 23, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

In the finale of the Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude 2009 series, George Manahan, the former music director of the Richmond Symphony, now music director of the New York City Opera, returned to town to join John Walter, the troupe’s artistic director, in Bela Bartók’s Sonata (1937) for two pianos and percussion. They played to a very full house, likely the largest crowd the Chamber Players have drawn in three summers at Bon Air Presbyterian Church.

Bartók may not be a doorbuster in Richmond, but Manahan performing Bartók has been, to judge from the turnouts here and when he conducted the symphony in the composer’s Concerto for Orchestra last year.

This was possibly the tardiest makeup date in Richmond’s musical history. Manahan and Walter played the Bartók sonata in February 1996 symphony concerts at Virginia Commonwealth University. Hardly anyone heard them, as the dates coincided with a "wintry mix" that frosted local roads with ice. I remember thinking at the time that this music was perfectly suited to an ice storm, both in its chilly sonorities and reinforcement of hazardous-driving anxiety.

The pianists, with percussionists James Jacobson (also an alumnus of the 1996 gig) and Montgomery Hatch of the City Opera Orchestra, didn’t really dispel Bartók’s chill – the piece’s body temperature is set by bright, often blunt, piano lines and high-frequency percussion instruments such as xylophone and cymbals; but their performance displayed the work’s wide range of cool colors in vivid detail. Played in this intimate space, with the percussion elevated, the sonata sounded huge and muscular. The frost melted nicely in the final movement, a rhythmically complex mosaic evoking Hungarian and other Balkan dances.

Flutist Mary Boodell, violinist Catherine Cary and violist Stephen Schmidt opened the program in Beethoven’s Serenade in D major (1801), a breezily Haydnesque piece with a few hints of the Beethoven to come in slow or lyrical passages (including an andante one of whose variations more than vaguely pre-echoes the "Pathétique" Sonata). The musicians, who played standing, brought a light touch and gratifying technique to the serenade’s fast figures; Boodell was especially soulful in the flute-led variation of the andante.

Mendelssohn, whose 200th anniversary the group has been marking in these concerts, was represented here in the String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, written while the composer was mourning his sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and finished a few months before his own death in 1847. That back story and the F minor key signature suggest a work of passion and gravity – and so it is, although its musical content rarely lives up to its mood and atmospherics.

Violinists Susy Yim and Catherine Cary, violist Schmidt and cellist Neal Cary played the Mendelssohn as big, serious music, but without much polish and with snatches of iffy intonation.